Saturday, August 27, 2011


Istanbul’s Sultanahmet area is like a treasure box full of antiquities.

I’ve explored the main sights many times now, particularly with our summer guests. Recently, I finally explored the little-visited Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaik Müzesi), which is located in the middle of the Arasta Bazaar. Ask any of the shopkeepers and they will tell you where to go once you pay a visit to their store too.

The museum is the best and perhaps only large-scale example of the once grandoise, but destroyed Great Palace. The outside structure doesn’t look like much, but inside it houses 1500-year-old mosaics full of lively, yet faded, images of hunting scenes, mythical creatures and artful objects. These mosaics once graced the floors of a large courtyard called the Peristyle Courtyard of Constantinople’s Great Palace.
Man leads camel through the streets.
In 1933, archaeologists discovered some of the mosaic pavement below the baazar, which date to the 6th century. Now, they are protected under roof-covered buildings. Much of the palace was destroyed in the Nika riots in 532, and then rebuilt by Emperor Justinian (527-565).

Even though the mosaics have faded and deteriorated over time, they are still impressive! In total, there are 90 scenes to view.

The Stag and the Snake
The Stag and the Snake - “The stag was considered an adversary of the snake ever since early Hellenistic times. With its breath, it draws the reptile from its pit, and it is immune to its poison....The stag bows its head so as to get a better grip on the snake.”

According to Byzantine sources, the Great Palace was surrounded with the Hippodrome and Zeuksippos Bath in the northwest, St. Sophia in the northeast and to the east and south out to sea. The site covered approximately an area of 100,000 square meters. The palace served as the residence for the Byzantine emperors between the 4-11th centuries and continuously expanded with new construction until the 10th century.

Following the 11th century, the palace was used only for meetings and as an official residence. During the Roman occupation, 1204-1261, the building was sacked like all other buildings in the city. Later the palace was completely abandoned and neglected. Many of the buildings collapsed or had been dismantled so the materials could be used in the construction of new buildings.
The Tigress Griffin
The Tigress Griffin - “Another rarity, this griffin again bears witness to the imagination of the artists working on the Palace Mosaics, Its head, legs and tail are those of a tiger, its teats indicate the tigress...The blood sprouting from the body of the dark-green lizard about to be devoured by the griffin bespeaks its deadly bite.”

The Lion Griffin
The Lion Griffin - “fabulous creatures are a favorite subject of the Palace Mosaics, depicted with the same seeming accuracy as the real animals. The muscles of the grey-brown lion griffin are made to stand out from its body by dark shadows. One of the ambling animal’s feathered wings is still visible.”
I was surprised to see elephants depicted in a few of the mosaics.
The Eagle and the Snake - “The motif, symbolizing the victory of light over darkness, is widespread in all of antiquity....Defeat is inevitable for the snake that has wound itself around the raptor’s body.”
The Eagle and the Snake

Until September 21, you also can learn more about the Great Palace by visiting a special exhibit called Byzantine Palaces in Istanbul at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The exhibit displays some of the artifacts such as pottery remnants discovered and explains more about the history of the palace. This is another exhibit that I recommend seeing while you can.
This model, currently on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, depicts the
Hippodrome and the area surrounding the Great Palace.
Whether you are visiting and have a few extra days to explore Istanbul's lesser known sights or if you call the city home, the Mosaic Museum is worth a few hours of your time.

Admission: 8 TL
Closed Mondays
Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

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3 comments:

Julia said...

We went to the mosaic museum the first time we visited Istanbul many years ago - well, about 8 years ago ;)- and we loved it so we might just be visiting again after your reminder. Great pics.

Sue Narayan said...

Visited this museum on a cold January day in 2010. Need to go back. Your photos do a great job of portraying the mosaics!

Joy said...

Thanks you! I was really impressed with this small museum. It's such a shame the "Great Palace" was destroyed over the years.

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